Once work was completed for the week we began our escape by heading down one of the many long, empty roads out of Vegas. As the city fell away behind us, all that remained was uncompromising desert flats, a horizon of tiny mountains off in the distance and the occasional military base or prison sprinkled in between. The only thing of note along that barren stretch of highway was the Area 51 Cafe which must not have realized that it was a tad bit south of the actual base. After a couple hours we arrived in Beatty, a small, former mining town. While there wasn’t much there, it provided a close base from which we could explore Death Valley.
After setting up camp we headed into the park for sunset. Despite being relatively close to the park, it still took us over an hour to get into the park and to arrive at the Mesquite Dunes. This is largely in part due to the sheer size of the park itself. Sitting on over 3.3 million acres, it is nearly the size of Connecticut. In addition to sheer size, the park ranges from sitting below sea level to rising to nearly 11,000 feet in places. The vastness is not easily conveyed but is truly quite astonishing. The massive sand dunes themselves rise to over 100 feet tall and cover a many square miles. Dune after dune, we ascended upwards to scale the tallest dunes and capture shots of the contrasting peaks of sand. Without the clouds, the sunset lacked the luster we really hoped for, but given that Death Valley has almost 365 days of sunny weather, it was little wonder there were no clouds. We sat and appreciated the sunset and twilight before making our way back down the rolling sand mountains and eventually back to the RV.
We got up around 3AM to head back into the park and attempt to capture some astrophotography. Sadly, our efforts were thwarted by a series of low level cloud layers that obscured the sky. For some reason, by sheer luck, when we came to Death Valley, one of the driest places in the world, clouds seemed to have followed us. It made taking pictures of the night sky and the stars impossible. Since the view of the stars was rendered hopeless, we decided to head to our next destination for sunrise, hoping that the clouds would clear away and give us a nice glow for the breaking of dawn. A quick nap in the truck was in order before we trudged out to Zabriskie Point where the hills look painted with the striations of the rock itself. As we sat out on the lip of the steep drop overlooking the main formations, the wind whipped violently and strong from behind us, but was warm upon the skin. As light began creeping across the sky the wind became steadily colder, and sadly the clouds refused to abate and blocked the brilliance of the suns glow from touching the point. We captured what we could and then made our way to Badwater Basin.
It was a funny feeling being in Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at almost 300 feet below sea level. The wind was so intense it almost knocked you over as it gustily made its way down the valley. The deeper we headed into the valley, the more the ground was cracked and plastered white with the thick crust of salt. The effect of the salt was apparent on the earth as it was creased and torn from having all the moisture sucked out of it. Unlike the Bonneville Salt Flats where the salt would cling to the bottom of your shoes and still seemed almost like wet snow, the salt here made your eyes feel as if they were drying out of your sockets as the wind hit them. The patterns upon the ground were very similar, but the Badwater Basin lacked the pure white glittering of Bonneville. The salt here was harsher, darker, and dull. Once we had finished taking our photos of the extensive basin we trudged our way back to the truck to grab some much needed sleep in the RV.
It’s amazing how refreshing a short nap and a good meal can be after being sleep deprived and exhausted. We were up and off again in no time as we had little time to spare if we were going to get to our next destination by sunset. After an hour and a half on the main roads, we took the truck down the rocky road to Racetrack Playa for 30 miles to reach Racetrack Playa. The whole road was extremely washboarded and the entire time you could barely exceed 20 mph or your tires would begin sliding out from the loose gravel and stones on the road. Those 30 miles took almost another 2 hours before we reached the Playa. The area is known for the mysterious ‘moving rocks’ that left long trails carved into the ground behind them. It wasn’t until rather recently that scientists were able to pinpoint the root cause. Apparently, it is an extremely rare event but the idea is that if the correct series of events occurs, it will trigger this phenomena. First, enough rain must collect in the area to partially cover the stones but not submerge them. Next, it must drop below freezing such that the top of the water is frozen but the bottom remains unfrozen. The temperature then needs to rise just enough that the ice begins to crack and leave gaps. Finally, the wind must be strong enough to push the now free ice chunks into the rocks with enough fore that it causes the subtle movements seen over time. This was something that had fascinated me as a child and to finally get a chance to see it in person, I was disappointed. This was not because of the rocks themselves, which I fully enjoyed and was enthralled by, but by the blatant carelessness and disregard of previous visitors. It was extremely apparent that people had no regard for this natural phenomenon. You could see the trails that must have taken thousands of years to have been made, only to find no rock at the end. Only an empty spot where it should have been, a trail cut short. On others you could see where the trail had been created by a larger rock, but another rock had been placed upon the track. Some places had tracks with rocks at the beginning and the end of them. It was abundantly apparent that people had been taking the rocks, or moving them to try and get a better photo without any real regard to the fact that these rocks were here because of thousands of years of absolutely perfect conditions to allow them to move. It was deeply saddening that people held such little regard for such things. As long as they got their perfect souvenire or that perfect shot, who cares right? With that in mind we were careful not to disturb any of the rocks, and after a lot of searching finally found a few that we liked, took our photos, and made sure to leave everything as we found it.
Once the sun had gone over the horizon, we made our way back down the long bumpy road back to the main road and through the dark to our RV once more. It had been an extremely full day and another long one was waiting for us the next morning as we would make our way across California and into Yosemite National Park.